Mariam Tórtola: “This award allows to make visible the work of women in particle physics”

  • December 14th, 2017
Mariam Tórtola
Mariam Tórtola.

Maria Iranzo. Pictures: Miguel Lorenzo

“It is said that the age of fifteen is the critical period in which good women science students give up the idea of doing a scientific degree”, Mariam Tórtola says surprised (Valencia, 1977). This has been what the organizers of the L'Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science Awards have communicated. These awards that want to boost the work of young women scientists and that this year have placed the spotlight on physics.

She has just been granted EUR 15,000 to carry out the study of subtle differences between matter and antimatter trough neutrinos oscillation observed by the DUNE experiment (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment). This is one of the most ambitious neutrino physics projects in the world in which the Institute for Corpuscular Physics of the Universitat de València participates.

“I travelled to Madrid to collect this important award and thanks to that, I have brought the possibility of making visible the work of women in particle physics, where today we are still a minority, and also I had the opportunity to meet some of the best women science students of secondary school from Burgos and Valladolid. They asked us their doubts, they told us about their aspirations and, above all, they were worried about work conciliation, “recalls Tórtola, who considers this boost vital to young promises.

For that reason, for the past five years, she has participated in the IFIC outreach activities and in Expociència, the Parc Científic of the Universitat de València open day. “Individually, I also organise the science week in Chilches (Castellón) and since the last year I participate in the celebration of Women’s and Girl’s Day in Science in cooperation with the 11 February initiative,” she stresses.

Now, the image of her Astronomy professor returns to her mind, “astronomy was an optional subject that captivated me and it was determining to study physics.” “I really liked the way our lecturer, who was a mathematician, introduced to the Astrophysics. He explained us hoe to build sundials and how to see constellations. In fact, he was who went to the University along with me in order to talk to some professors and finally convinced me. Coincidentally, today I am working in neutrinos, which are in the middle of particle physics and astrophysics and cosmology. " 

Brilliant academic records.

Twenty-three year after that decision, she has a brilliant academic record which includes the Extraordinary award of the Degree in Physics (2000); the Extraordinary Doctorate Award (2006); the Novel Investigator Prize in Theoretical Physics of the Royal Spanish Society of Physics and the BBVA Foundation (2008); the experience of working two years, between 2006 and 2008, at the Higher Technical Institute of Lisbon with a postdoctoral contract from the European Commission; and a postdoctoral contract at the University of Hamburg, “where I worked until December 2009, the date on which I rejoined the IFIC as a doctor contracted by the JAE-Doc program of the CSIC. Since 2015 I am a Ramón y Cajal contracted researcher, through which I participate in the teaching of the Department of Theoretical Physics of the University, and this has led to the consolidation of my research career.”

Like any work in basic science, the practical application is not immediate for the direct benefit to society. “As happened in countless cases, the techniques and tools developed for these investigations have led to applications in other fields, such as medical physics. In this sense, DUNE experiment is developing a new technology with liquid argon detectors, that would have applications in the future. Even so, the main benefit of the proposed project is rather related to the expansion of knowledge limits. We want to see its ability to detect signs of new physics”, the researcher explains.

Meanwhile, the remuneration that comes with the L'Oreal-Unesco award “will be used to extend the contract of a postdoctoral researcher of my team, and will allow us to make a more relevant contribution within the physics work group beyond the standard model.”  

“I explain you... In addition to detect the differences between matter and antimatter, we want to go further. We know three types of neutrinos that interact with matter, but some experiments indicate that there would be a fourth sterile neutrino that does not interact with the rest of the particles. What we are doing are simulations to know if, taking into account that it can be there, the DUNE experiment will be able to detect this fourth neutrino and observe indirect signals. The potential discovery of new physics at DUNE will completely transform our understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe."

The importance of dissemination

After the question of whether this positive discrimination against women is necessary, Mariam Tórtola believes that “it is very important to give visibility to women, especially in certain areas where we are no longer a majority, such as the Degree in Physics, where women are thirty percent of the student body. People asks us for patience, it will come, but I see that for years we are a majority in the University, as well as among doctorates, and this is not reflected in the higher levels of management.” 

“In addition to the incompatibility between doing the degree abroad and family conciliation” (Tórtola is mother of two sons of six and two years old), “women are still facing a biased assessment of our merits, in spite of the advances in gender equality. Different studies have proved that these bias, carried out unconsciously in many cases, appear in recruitment processes, projects evaluation etc. And, therefore, it affects to the development of our scientific career compared to our male colleagues.”  

She does not lose heart. She has two “good references”, the physicists Maria Skłodowska Curie y Lise Meitner. They were pioneering women who carried out researches under very hard conditions. Cuirie is the only person with two Nobel prizes in two different scientific disciplines, a fact that, in my opinion, is not sufficiently valued. And Lise Meitner, who discovered the nuclear fission, was nominated for the Nobel Prize more than seventy times and was never granted.” 

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